Keeping Your Education Current Without Going Broke

It's easy to get stuck in a job and lose your edge technologically. Beyond your TPG subscription, here are some ideas you can use to further your IT knowledge without breaking the bank.

Working for a big company can be a very different experience from working for a small firm. I have friends who work in the IT departments for huge companies. Often, such companies have volume licensing agreements with Microsoft, which means that they always get the latest software as soon as it is released. When such companies do get new applications or operating systems, they typically think nothing of dropping big bucks to send the administrative staff off to training or to bring a certified trainer in house.

The experience at smaller companies is often much different though. There are exceptions to every rule, but generally, small companies have almost no IT budget. Such companies often employee a couple of techies whose job it is to keep everything running. However, there is usually no budget or incentive to keep the software current. In fact, upgrading to a new operating system or to a new version of an application almost always requires months of heavily justified arguments from the IT staff. Because the company is not interested in keeping software current, there is no reason for the IT staff to keep their training current.

I have actually worked for both types of companies at various points in my career. I quickly learned that unless I kept my knowledge current that I would never be able to get another IT job anywhere else. Since management wasn't about to pay to send me to any type of training, I knew that I was on my own. I had to figure out a way of getting the best possible training for the least amount of money, until I could find another job that would help me to keep my education current.

In the end, I ended up working for myself, but the lessons that I learned about keeping my education current proved to be valuable. Because I work for myself, I have to pay for my own training, so I am still out to get the best training at the best prices. In this article, I want to share with you some of the techniques that I use to maintain my education. Hopefully, you will find some of these techniques valuable.

Be a Book Worm

My first low budget training technique is that I am a book worm. I buy and read any computer book that I can get my hands on. Granted, books can get expensive, but if you look at the amount of useful information found in a good computer book, the price of the book seems rather insignificant. This is especially true if you compare the price of a book to most training classes. I will talk about the books in more detail later on, but I wanted to mention it up front since it is such a huge part of my method for maintaining my education.

Subscribe to Periodicals and E-mail Newsletters

Another thing that I do to keep my education current is to subscribe to various periodicals and E-mail based newsletters. The trick here though is not to over subscribe. There are so many great periodicals out there that it is tempting to just subscribe to all of them. However, I purposely limit myself so that I won't subscribe to more than I can comfortably read.

Look For Free Training Events

Yes, you read it correctly. There are free training events out there, and I recommend taking advantage of as many of them as you possibly can. One excellent source of free training is IT professional groups. For example, I am a member of the Carolina IT Professional Group. This group has a meeting once a month. Meetings usually consist of an industry expert discussing some new IT related product or concept. It's basically free training.

Granted, North and South Carolina are a bit out of reach for most of you, but the Carolina IT Professional Group belongs to a much larger organization called Culminis. Culminis has IT professional groups all over the world, and many of these groups have educational meetings similar to the ones that the group I belong to have.

Microsoft also puts on free training events all over the country. You can access a list of free events in your area at Microsoft's Web site. Microsoft also puts on free Webcasts on a regular basis, and you can find information on those at this Web site as well.

One of the things that I have come to realize about Microsoft's free training events is that although they are usually of very good quality, I have trouble making myself go to them. After all, no one is requiring me to go to the training classes, so why in the world would I want to get up early and drive for an hour to go to a training class?

Since I have a motivational problem, I take advantage of the fact that Microsoft has these classes all over the country. There's nothing thrilling for me about going to a training class in South Carolina where I live, but I love Miami Beach! Therefore, I will typically arrange to go to Miami whenever Microsoft is having a free training event. That way, I have an incentive to make myself go to class. I reward myself with some beach time or with the Miami nightlife after having gone to class.

Attend Specialized Events

So far I have focused primarily on free or low cost ways of keeping your training current. However, twice a year I go to some of the bigger trade shows because they offer knowledge that you simply can't get anywhere else. These shows can be expensive and may strain your budget, but they can be well worth the investment.

The first show that I make sure never to miss is Microsoft's TechEd. Admission to TechEd is almost $2,000, but in my opinion it is very much worth it. Not only are the presentations excellent, you always have a chance to speak one on one with the various product groups. I always come to TechEd with a long list of tough questions and I always manage to get them all answered.

The other show that I never miss is COMDEX. Admission to COMDEX is usually fairly cheap (under $50), but I consider it to be one of the more expensive shows, just because of the cost of staying in Las Vegas for a week.

The reason why I consider COMDEX to be so important is because all of the hardware and software companies come to show their latest wares. It gives you a chance to get a first hand look at all of the latest technology, and it gives you a really good feel for the current trends in the IT industry.

COMDEX was canceled in 2004 because COMDEX 2003 was widely considered to be disastrous. However, COMDEX 2005 is scheduled for November. The issues that made COMDEX 2003 such a poor show are supposed to have been corrected.

Build a Home Network

It won't do you much good to learn about all of the latest software if you never get to try out your knowledge. I recommend building a small, home network, just so that you can gain experience working with various network operating systems and applications.

I'll admit that Microsoft server products are expensive, but there are ways of building your home network on a budget. One way is to take advantage of trial software. Microsoft provides downloadable trials for most of their products. These are full featured products, but the software usually expires after a few months.

Your other option for low budget software is to order an MSDN subscription. An MSDN subscription can be expensive, but even the most expensive MSDN subscription (MSDN Universal) costs a lot less than even a single copy of Windows Server 2003. The other nice thing about having an MSDN subscription is that Microsoft sends you all of the latest software each month.

Try To Get Some First Hand Knowledge

When I quit my day job and decided to become a full time freelance writer I was absolutely thrilled at the thought of never having to deal with another end user again for as long as I lived. At that time, Windows 2000 was brand new, and I used my free time and the techniques that I already talked about to become a Windows 2000 expert.

About a year later, a friend of mine won a contract for a fairly high profile Windows deployment. He was a little short handed and since I was basically a walking Windows 2000 encyclopedia at that point, he asked me to help out with the project. I wasn't thrilled about having to work outside of my home, and I definitely didn't need the money, but I've never been the type to turn my back on a friend, so I agreed to help him out.

On the first day of the project, I had an unexpected realization. Although I knew Windows 2000 inside out, I had never touched a real world deployment. Sure, I had a test lab in my basement with a bunch of computers running Windows 2000, but there are a lot of things that you have to deal with on real world networks that you will never encounter in a lab environment.

Even though I probably had more Windows related textbook knowledge than anyone else involved in the project, I felt like a fish out of water. I eventually managed to complete the project, but most of the time while I was working on it, I felt like an idiot because I had so little real world experience with the Windows 2000 operating system.

This taught me a valuable lesson. Lab work is no replacement for real world experience. To this day, I still hate working outside of my home, but a couple of times a year I will undertake small consulting projects just so that I can see what it's like to apply my knowledge to real world projects. Most of the time when I do projects like this, it will be on a voluntary basis for non-profit organizations. I have found that doing volunteer work for non-profit agencies has less pressure than real consulting jobs because they aren't paying you by the hour (or at all). That means that I can really take my time and focus on really trying to understand anything strange that I might run into.

How In The World Can You Remember All of That?

Being that I work out of my home, I have one room of my house set up as a library. It is filled with shelves that are jam packed with computer books. When ever family or friends come over for the first time, they always ask me two questions. First, have you read all of these? Second, how can you remember all of that material?

These two simple questions actually hold the key to one of the biggest tricks that I use for staying current with my education. In answer to the first question, yes I have read all of the books on my shelf. Actually, that isn't entirely true, but I have read the vast majority of them. The reason why I can't say that I have read all of the books is because I am constantly buying new books. I just bought four more Windows books yesterday, and I haven't had a chance to even open them yet. I am hoping to put a good dent in reading them this weekend though.

The other question regarding how I can possibly remember all of the material that I read has an answer that you might not expect. The answer is, not only do I not remember all of the material, I don't even try to remember it.

For a long time, I tried to remember every last detail of various Windows and NetWare operating systems. Eventually though, the task of trying to remember all of that information became overwhelming. I now take a totally different approach to digesting new information.

As I read or hear information in a training class, some of the material really sinks in, but most of it doesn't. I do pay enough attention though that even if I can't recall all of the specific details about a topic, if someone brings the topic up, I at least remember reading about it, and I know where to go look if I need more information.

Of course ignorance is a poor long term solution in the IT industry. Just because I don't try to retain every last detail of everything that I read doesn't mean that I want to remain ignorant. To fully digest a topic, I usually rely on repetition. For example, the first time that I read a complex description of a new feature, I'll probably remember about a tenth of the material. However, I read a lot and attend a lot of training classes. It's only a matter of time before I run into the material again in another book or in another class. At that time, I am already a little bit familiar with the topic, so the new material enhances what I already know about the topic. Usually by the third or fourth time that I run into a topic, I have a thorough understanding of the topic and remember almost all of the details.

I know that this technique isn't for everyone. For example, it definitely wouldn't be appropriate for someone who is studying for a certification exam. However, for me this technique provided me with a way to remember technical material with very little effort. Sure, I read a lot of books and go to a lot of classes, but those are all things that I would normally be doing any way.

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